It is common fodder to tease the brother-sister kiss of Luke and Leia in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, but at least part of that embarrassment is owed to the fact that the episode was written before George Lucas decided upon their sibling lineage. This plot point was added in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, restoring some connection to early drafts where Luke and Leia were one-and-the-same character. Years later, the births of twins Luke and Leia would be depicted in Revenge of the Sith, adding to the narrative. Flash forward to this winter, and the world is abuzz wondering if either Luke or Leia may be the parent of Rey, who is in possession of a lightsaber lost in ESB (spoilers, not sorry).
Star Wars is a great example of a story that has taken shape over many years, with multiple contributing authors, and liberal revision to existing chapters to smooth consistency. Watched anew today, the seven episode saga would appear to tell a smooth, well-planned tale of the Skywalker clan, even though it was anything but during the process of creating it.
Moses – Great Writer, Bad at Directions
When I was a lad, my parents schemed to force me to pay attention during church by sitting in the front rows where Pastor Carl Ens could call on me from the pulpit when my attention wandered. He was a tall, gentle, intellectual man whose confidence and soothing voice was quite authoritative to my formative self. So, when he assured me without hesitation that Moses was the author of the start of the Bible and that God used the time together on Mount Sinai to personally relay pre-historical event details, I believed it.
As an eager Bible college freshman, I earned my way into the then-upper-year Pentateuch course. An entire semester covering the first five books of the Bible — those historically credited to Moses’ hand — and Dr. Ken Schamuhn spent mere minutes on the first day on the topic of authorship. I was too enamored by his style and credentials to notice.
I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for accepting Mosaic authorship on authority. It took until around 1200 A.D. for historians to seriously question how Moses could have written about his own death, or brag that none like himself arose in the years after his passing.
It was during my quest to find scientific evidence for a literal reading of Genesis that I stumbled upon JEDP — the Documentary Hypothesis.
A Patchwork Quilt, Not a Solid Duvet
The modern protestant Biblical canon already consists of 66 books written by dozens of anonymous authors over the course of centuries. Taken alone, it should make little difference to anyone’s faith to learn that some chapters were order-shuffled, reorganized from four books into five and written by a committee.
But for me, fresh from having scientific evidence collapse my long-held belief in the literal truth of the Genesis creation and flood, my apologetic defenses were down.
How many revisions could a book go through and still be divinely inspired? What role did this “R” editor play? Was it really just copy-and-paste, or was there editorial manipulation? Were the edits divine?
J and E – The God of Regional Rivalries
One advantage to the church espousing Mosaic authorship is that it makes the writer a witness and contemporary to the events described. If Moses died around 1400 BCE (there is no consensus date range for this, a topic for another post), the J and E sources were written centuries later and with seemingly less authority.
In the detailed and scripturally-reverent Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Elliott Friedman explores the consensus view that J and E were written during the time when the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were split and before reunification. “This would put the author of J between 848 and 722. The author of E composed in Israel, which stood from 922 to 722 B.C.”
More disturbing to me than the time gaps were the human agendas that emerged. In J and E, the political causes, viewpoints and prejudices of their particular half of the split kingdom are more than subtext. Each account takes up opposing sides in north / south regional feuds — molten vs plate metallurgy, Levitical culpability in creating idols, team Joshua vs team Aaron, heroic cameos for Judah-mascot cherubs, to name a few.
Friedman reflects, “The ark does not appear in E. The Tabernacle does not appear in J. This is no coincidence. The stories in the sources treat the religious symbols of the respective communities from which they came.”
A devout Bible-believer has no problem forgiving subtle human bias as part of the inevitable flavor consequence of a God-man joint project. But to a skeptic, this sounds more like ancient propaganda than inspired literature. So far, this is a very human product indistinguishable from secular writing.
Origin Story – Polytheism
Despite the differences, J and E are obviously too similar to not come from a common tradition. For that, we must jump back around 500 years to the clay tablets alphabetic cuneiform describing the Canaanite religion, found in Ugarit, Syria and dating back to before 1200 BCE.
In Genesis, Abraham is said to interact with El Shaddai — one of the names for the Canaanite god, El Elyon. After physically wrestling with El Elyon, Jacob makes him his “elohim” — the Canaanite term for one’s “primary god”. This makes sense only in the context where Jacob believes in multiple gods, and is choosing El Elyon as his primary.
You may recognize Elohim as divine name used by the author of E.
J establishes his primary deity, Yahweh, a great warrior. J’s polytheistic language survives into modern translations. He asks “Who is like you among gods, Yahweh?” and “Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all other gods!”
Modern translations show Israelites turning their back on “God” to worship of Baal and Asherah, almost immediately after God’s great display of power in freeing them from Egypt. This makes much more sense when one imagines a polytheistic culture where war is over (thank Yahweh), and it’s time to get to the business of making babies with the fertility gods. Different gods for different seasons, not rejection.
All Hail the God of War
When Assyria sieged the northern state of Israel around 750 BCE and put the nation in upheaval, three prophets arose — Isaiah, Amos and Hosea — who pleaded with the Israelites in their texts to return to devotion to war-god Yahweh above the other gods, that they may be saved. (Spoiler: Israel fell anyway, but J and E were combined for the first time under this Yahwist influence.)
Enter King Josiah around 622 BCE, who also held that the Hebrews’ problems stemmed from a lack of Yahweh devotion. It was during Josiah’s temple renovation that the book of Deuteronomy (D source) was “found” under conveniently dubious circumstance and declared a lost book of Moses. In it, a strict adherence to Yahweh is established, while rejecting worship of other gods.
Much like Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as Rome’s official religion catapulted that faith, sweeping reforms were made when Josiah declared Yahweh the official deity of Israel and all other gods were abolished.
In response to Deuteronomy, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were revised according to the new Yahweh-exclusive theology. The tales of the exodus from Egypt in J and E were added to, and revised, to make them Yahweh-centric.
Josiah and his scribes were not yet monotheistic. They believed in other gods, as they wrote passages like “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Welcome to Babylon
In 604 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II rose to power in Babylon, and he was bent on destroying Israel. Interest in the protection from Yahweh, god of war, was renewed. The author of the priestly P source emerged, adding a second half to the book of Isaiah and finally completing the long evolution to Hebrew monotheism with “This is what the Lord says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.”
Almost as significantly, the conquering Babylonian creation story — as found in the 1750 BCE Enuma Elish — is somewhat scrubbed for monotheism and appended as a brand-new first chapter of the Torah. The creation of the world from something formless and void was kept from the Enuma Elish tradition, as was the specific creation ordering of light, firmament, dry land, the sun and moon and ultimately mankind.
Until this time, Genesis 2 was Israel’s only recorded creation story. The culture had been relatively free of Babylonian influence. Suddenly, ancient Babylonian origin myths were adopted by the conquered and were canonized.
The P source was thorough in crafting a coherent monotheistic narrative from the four sources. It was 600 BCE, and no earlier, that Old Testament monotheism was born.
Yahweh Shot First
The holy book I believed in wasn’t revealed. It wasn’t written. It was manufactured. Edited. Borrowed. Cherry picked. Periodically updated like a piece of software with bug fixes requiring new terms and conditions to accept.
The details of these hypotheses, particularly specific textual alterations, cannot be conclusively proven, only pointed to with evidence. However, all claims would be easily falsifiable by archeology… even tiny scraps of the disputed texts dated to before the years presented above would do it.
For me, it was enough to see that the only evidence I had of an unchanging god was an unquestionably often-changing book. Rather than taking it at face value, going forward I would require positive evidence to regard the Bible as anything more than a collection of bronze age propaganda… at best, legends that grew over time.
Despite my decades of Bible training, this information was new to me. Perhaps it is to you? Or perhaps you already knew all of this and have reconciled it as theologically unimportant trivia? Let me know in the comments.
Perhaps you doubt it all and are skeptical of these claims? Perfect! You should be. I am but a layman barely scratching the surface. I would strongly encourage you to investigate for yourself, and let me know in the comments what evidence you find. (Much of the information above came from “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong and “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Richard Elliott Friedman, with graphics from Atheism: A History of God by evid3nc3.)
Or perhaps you think J.J. Abrams’ time travel device in Star Trek was a bigger retcon? Or erasing the events of the bad X-Men films with X-Men Days of Future Past? Or perhaps the establishing / deestablishing / reestablishing Joe Chill as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents? Let me know.
I’m just sad we now have that pan flute instead of the 1983 “yub nub” Ewok song at the end of Return of the Jedi. (Celebrate the love.)